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Historical Figures In Engineering: Wernher von Braun and the Moon Landing

  • by: Jennifer Robinson
  • On: 5, Dec 2017
3 min read

Neil Armstrong’s famous words, ‘One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ were only made possible by the iconic scientific breakthroughs of NASA. The story behind the Moon Landing is often forgotten: VHR reveals the Aerospace innovations of Wernher von Braun, the man who took us to the moon.

Wernher von Braun (1912–1977) was a German Aerospace inventor and engineer who, in the last stages of World War II, defected to the United States to become a leading influencer in American Aerospace science. Initially working for the Third Reich, von Braun designed long-range rocket V-2 in 1939. The V-2 could fly 200 miles, becoming the first human creation capable of reaching space.

Wernher Von Braun was one of the first people to conceive the idea of humanity exploring other planets via realistic means. After surrendering to the American army in 1945, von Braun was taken to the States but, with the US Government unwilling to rely on German scientists, performed little engineering research until his big break five years later.

By the time Wernher von Braun had arrived in America, the US and Soviet armies had invaded German concentration camps to find blueprints detailing the architecture of the V-2. In 1953 Soviet engineer Sergei Korolev used the V-2 plans to construct and test his R-7: the first rocket to cross a geographical area larger than the Atlantic Ocean. The R-7 was a multi-stage rocket propelled by 4 boosters which would be released after passing Earth’s atmosphere, leaving the rocket’s core cylinder to continue towards its target.

The Space Race: Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev

In 1957 Sergei Korolev created an R-7 that could carry an atomic bomb across the Atlantic, and in the same year used the R-7 technology to send the first man-made object into space: the Sputnik Satellite. Weighing less than 200 pounds and equipped only with a radio transmitter, thermometers and batteries, Sputnik took only one month to construct and made Russia the first country to successfully embark into space. In 1959 Sergei Korolev followed this feat by designing the Luna 2, the first human object to reach the surface of another celestial body.

After several unsuccessful attempts to develop the American space programme, US President Eisenhower decided to involve German scientists.

In 1958 von Braun constructed the Jupiter C which successfully launched into orbit the first American satellite, the Explorer 1. Continuing the Space Race, Russia stepped up their technological advances and in 1961, Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to space. In just 108 minutes, Yuri Gagarin travelled over 25,000 miles.

New American President John F. Kennedy gave his best Aerospace engineers a deadline and an unprecedented mission: to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Partnering with American engineer Thomas J. Kelly, Wernher von Braun designed a rocket which could orbit the Moon whilst a smaller lunar lander would detach and reach the surface.

The death of Sergei Korolev in 1966 crippled the Soviet space programme, leaving Wernher von Braun to take the reins of the Space Race. In 1967 the German engineer built the largest and most powerful rocket of the time: the Saturn 5. The Saturn 5 was a 363 feet tall, 3 stage rocket that needed 5.6 million pounds of fuel just to launch.

The Saturn 5 launched further Space Race trials followed by a long string of ‘Apollo’ missions. In December 1968, Apollo 8 became the first human mission to orbit the moon and safely arrive home. Now there was only one final challenge: The landing. On 16th July 1969, Apollo 11 was launched, transporting 3 astronauts including Neil Armstrong. The astronauts travelled for three days, covering 238,000 miles to the moon.

Finally on July 20th 1969, with millions around the world watching through live television, Apollo 11 landed on the surface of the moon. Neil Armstrong’s words reached across the globe, but few know of the original V-2 plans that sparked the Space Race and launched decades of Aerospace innovation.

Learn about the future of commercial spaceflight, or learn how spaceflight has changed since the moon landing. 

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